Ten minutes after I was sexually harassed on Oberon Day.
In the spirit of the Take Back the Night activities this week and the recent SlutWalk in Toronto, I would like to stir up a little conversation on the issue of sexual harassment, sexual assault and women's safety here in Ann Arbor. For most women, sexual harassment is something we deal with on a daily basis. It's sneaky, it's irritating, it's pervasive. Worst of all, it's not even traumatic, really; it's everyday life. According to a study by Michigan State University, sexual harassment--from drunk frat boys, from co-workers, from homeless men while you walk to school--is so commonplace in our lives, we can let it roll off our shoulders. Most of the time, sexual harassment is a non-story, an occurrence I don't even share with my boyfriend at the end of the day. (And he'll get a text when I see a cute dog on the street.) It's not the kind of thing most women like to dwell on: it'll ruin your day and, from a practical perspective, if you reflected on every instance, you'd never have any time to do your actual life.
Well, not today. Today I'm going to bitch about it, in every sense of the word. I invite you to join me.
It was about 10:30 PM on Oberon Day, and I was on my way to grab a quick beer--an Oberon, natch--with BCB at Old Town after my Sex Equality class (I assure you, the irony is not lost). I was walking down William Street near the parking structure on Fourth Avenue when a sixty-something-year-old man passed me. I hardly noticed him--I was lost, as is my wont, in my walking-around daydreams--until he said something.
"Are you wearing panties?"
Well, I noticed him now. (Was that the point?) He had dirty, salt-and-pepper hair and he carried a backpack. He may have been homeless, or an aging hippie, or maybe both. I looked straight ahead and walked past him. Why does he think I'm not wearing underwear, I wondered.
"Can I buy your panties?" he shouted after me. "How much are they? Would you sell them to me?"
At this point, I was nearing the lighted and peopled Main Street, so I turned around and flipped him the bird, issuing a verbal salute as well. That is one nice thing about downtown Ann Arbor: I always feel safe enough to do at least that. It made me feel a little bit better, but the interaction weighed heavy on my thoughts for the rest of the walk. Why did he ask about my underwear? Could he somehow see it through the baggy sweatpants I threw on hours ago, after a mid-day yoga break? Maybe it was the dried sweat in my headbanded hair that caught his attention? Or my dad's old corduroy jacket that my Oma made for him in the seventies? I wondered if my dad had ever been solicited for his underwear while walking around Ann Arbor in this jacket.
Of course, as any woman can attest, there is no rhyme or reason to these things. Sexual harassment and sexual assault have nothing to do with desire and everything to do with power and humiliation. (This is one of the many reasons victim-blaming is so offensive and, you know, completely divorced from reality.) Sometimes you get catcalls in your slutty bumble bee Halloween costume; more often you're in line at the post office in your boyfriend's jeans and sweatshirt when someone decides to tell you a thing or two about your "tits."
So, readers, I'd like to turn over the conversation to you. What do you do when you are sexually harassed? Do you avoid any parts of town? How does Ann Arbor measure up as safe and comfortable place for women to live?